A Visit to Tetuan, More Sheep, and Very Few Jews

We struck out this morning for a day trip to the seaside resort town of Tetuan, also spelled Tétouan and Tettauen. (But not Tattoine, the desert planet in Star Wars, whose scenes were filmed next door in Tunisia.) It’s a historically schizophrenic place because, being within spitting distance of Gibraltar, it has been more heavily influenced by Spain, and for longer, than much of the rest of the country. Indeed there is still a disputed island just off the coast, visible from town, that is claimed by both Spain and Morocco. One of the results of this influence is that Spanish is widely spoken here, as much a second language as French. Moreover, speaking Arabic does not work well here (not that I would know) since the local dialect is very different from the rest of the country.

But before we reached Tetuan, in a village en route we encountered a sheep market. (I know, I know, but I can’t promise that there will be no more sheep-related blog posts.) This took place in an empty, dusty field where assorted small groups of men had parked their pickup trucks and vans and had their wares on display: small herds of sheep and goats, prevented from wandering around by having their two front ankles (do goats have ankles?) tied together to hobble them. They could walk awkwardly around, but there would be no escapes today. Here’s the scene, including one breeder who was selling very fancy-looking — and unhobbled — angora-like goats, which he was quite happy to pose for me.


You do not want to ride in the van.


He wanted to sell me all four, but I only needed two.

Tetuan is about a half million people, more than twice the size of Chefchaouen, and has far more of a big city feel to it. There is a local royal palace (many cities have them, should the king happen to stop by for a day or two), broad avenues, a pedestrian mall/marketplace, and very French-looking architecture, right down to the cafés. And here is one of those cafés, complete with hybrid French-Spanish name (“Eight Rivers [Spanish] Tea Salon [French]”).


Notice something a little odd about this tableau? Hint: every person in it carries a Y chromosome. And this is the universal sight here. Men do not take their women to cafés, and single women never go alone for fear of being perceived as prostitutes. The upshot is that you see few women at cafés.

The pedestrian market — a street that is blocked off on certain days — was doing a lively business, especially at the stalls selling school supplies; I infer that we are near the beginning of the school year. Here are a couple of street scenes.

tetuan-04 tetuan-05

In the neighborhood adjacent to the royal palace is the medina, the traditional city within a city that includes the local casbah, a souk, and the Jewish quarter. The latter is not a coincidence: the Jewish quarters in Moroccan cities are always adjacent to the local royal palace. Why? Because the rulers of old needed competent accountants and occasional financial backing, and the old Jewish stereotypes happen to be accurate on those particular subjects. No, I am not making this up. I am also not altogether sure how I feel about it.

But the point is kind of moot now. With only 3000 Jews left in the country, there are no more Jewish “quarters” per se. In Tetuan’s medina we have a dingy Jewish alley, home to something like seven Jewish families. I expect it’s not much different elsewhere.

(Speaking of Jews  — how did this blog post get all Jewish, all of a sudden? — there is an interesting fact about Chefchaouen that I forgot to mention yesterday, namely that the origin of its ubiquitous blue color is Jewish. There was a large Jewish population there in the 1930’s, and they all decided to paint their houses blue, that being Judaism’s semi-official color: look at the flag of Israel. The locals liked it, and it became a thing. The Jews all left in 1948 but painting buildings blue is now Chefchaouen’s schtick. Who knew? But back to Tetuan.)

tetuan-11The medina in Tetuan strongly resembles the souks in Chefchaouen and elsewhere: narrow streets crammed with vendors, customers, and tourists; ominously dank narrow side alleys, feral cats everywhere underfoot. The main difference is that the medina is a more permanent, self-contained unit where people actually live. There are dwellings and even at least one day care center, which we visited. It was a dim but cheery one-room schoolhouse with entirely typical kindergarten posters on the wall and several children sitting at tables doing 5 year old kind of stuff. The teacher requested that we not take pictures, but one rambunctious young guy who was just leaving school was quite insistent that I take his picture, so here he is.

The amount and variety of activity on the narrow stone streets, and the density of people, give the place a lively and occasionally overwhelming atmosphere that involves all of one’s senses (yes, including smell). We were simultaneously impressed and horrified by two guys manhandling an enormously heavy cartload of firewood up the street, forcing everyone else to flatten themselves against the wall. The guy in the front was working.


But of course, it is scenes like that that make the visit worthwhile. So in that spirit, here are a few other visually interesting people in the medina:


A shoemaker and his customer. Or maybe his disapproving mother…hard to tell.


A cheese vendor


A cat apparently buying hardware. OK, not a person…so sue me.


A vegetable vendor who insisted that I buy a gigantic squash in exchange for taking her picture. (I didn’t.)

Across the street from the medina is a crafts school that, decades ago, was a Jewish community center. These days the school educates middle- and high school age children of both sexes in (to them) gender-appropriate crafts: woodworking and leather for the boys, sewing and embroidery for the girls. Here are some boys being taught woodwork painting. (We were not allowed to photograph the girls.)


Following this, we headed back along the Mediterranean coast for a seaside lunch of grilled fish…a whole lot of grilled fish. First we were served a paella, and as we we were finishing that up and starting to wonder whether that was an appetizer or the main course, the waiter showed up with two trays the size of throw rugs, one filled entirely with sardines (which I love!), the other with giant prawns, calamari, whitefish, swordfish steaks, and sole filets. It was completely over the top, a veritable Grilled Fishtravaganza, and after complaining vociferously about the impossible volume of food, we finished off about 85% of it. Hey, we’re on vacation.

The setting for this meal was refreshing, especially after the claustrophobic souk and general crush of humanity. We were on a breezy terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, the water aqua close to shore but shading to cobalt a few hundred yards out. The day was sunny, the temperature in the upper 70’s, the hillsides dotted with whitewashed houses and vacation cottages. Next to us was the fleet of fishing boats from whence, presumably, at least some of our meal had been hauled.


We lounged around for a bit before heading back to Chefchaouen along a coastal road that gave way to a tortuous route through the mountains, snaking along a river at the base of steep limestone cliffs. The view was quite similar to many places in southern California, and not by coincidence since the geology is very similar.

We arrived back at the main square and returned on foot to our riad, resting up for a few hours before tackling the question of whther we even want dinner. (Answers: yes for me, maybe for Alice. And definitely not for Steve, who, alas, seems to have eaten some inadequately prepared eggplant last night and is now feverish and intestinally challenged. We fervently hope, and are reasonably sure that he will be OK, but it certainly complicates life for himself and Thumper at the moment.)

One final note before I quit for the evening. Did you know that the entire country of Morocco has only 20 movie theaters? Of course not, because how the hell could you possibly know that unless you are Moroccan? (At least one of my blog followers is in fact Moroccan, so M’hamed L, did you know this?) The reason for this, it turns out, has nothing to do with Islamic law as you might have guessed. Rather, it is because Morocco has no intellectual property laws. In other words, copyrights and trademarks don’t mean much here, so EVERYTHING is variously counterfeited or pirated. No need to go to the movies if you can buy DVDs of every single movie for next to nothing, right? My immediate concern about this is that there is a very slight chance that the genuine Dolce & Gabbana purse that I bought for ten bucks to give to my evil former assistant Angie might not be genuine. She probably won’t notice so, everyone, please let’s make this our little secret.

Tomorrow we leave Chefchaouen for good and head to Tanger. Maybe I will have some more sheep-related stories to relate.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “A Visit to Tetuan, More Sheep, and Very Few Jews

  1. Jeanne Alexis Beatty

    It’s a great pity that the photo of the shoemaker and the apparently disgruntled elderly soul nearby wasn’t snapped in time for the SESDA All-Hands Meeting caption contest!

  2. Sandra Michaels

    So enjoying sharing your journey with you.

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